Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a survivor, an icon, and, above all, a complicated, transgender trailblazer. Born Lothar Berfelde, the German antique dealer killed her father as a young child and then survived in East Berlin as the city fell under the rule of both the Communist and Nazis regimes. It was her incredible story that attracted the attention of playwright Doug Wright after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After spending hundreds of hours recording his interviews with the then-65-year-old Mahlsdorf, Wright developed her story into a play called I Am My Own Wife, which was the English title of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's own autobiography. With the one-woman, 35-character play that Wright created from her story, she became immortalized in trans history.
Shortly after the play was released in May 2003, it opened on Broadway and thrust the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf into the national spotlight to rave reviews. With Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project at the help, the adaptation won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Play and for Best Actor in a Play for Jefferson Mays’ portrayal of every single character in the play. That same year, Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It was a national phenomenon at a time when transgender issues had no place in the national dialogue and only a year earlier, having gay sex had been legalized in Lawrence v. Texas. Yet, even with the accolades and praise, it disappeared from the cultural consciousness as quickly as it had come.
That may all change. Over a decade later, I Am My Own Wife is making a comeback and, this time, it’s back with a transgender tour de force. At Los Angeles’s Renberg Theater, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is rising again in a new reading of the play with an all-trans cast and crew.
Danny Gordon by David-Simon Dayan
Directed by Danny Gordon and co-produced and starring 2018 Eligible Bachelor Jacob Tobia, the new staged reading of the iconic play ditched the “one-woman show” staging and was led by Rain Valdez, Jacob Tobia, Jason Greene and Scott Turner Schofield in a one-night-only production last Friday night with the support of the City of West Hollywood's WeHo Arts Program and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
We caught up with Gordon and Tobia to talk about what it means to stage this in such an anti-trans political climate, how the production came together, and celebrating the trans community’s long history of survival.
OUT: Danny, what prompted you to adapt I Am My Own Wife?
Danny Gordon: A few years ago, I was producing a one-man show about Anna Wintour and it was a cisgender male playing her. He was really funny but it got my brain thinking about other works of theater where a man plays a woman. I of course thought of I Am My Own Wife and my next thought was, someone should really do that play but instead of one person doing it, it should be an ensemble of transgender actors.
This was pre-Trump and I kept the idea in my head. I mentioned it to a few people. Then when Trump was elected, I knew I had to do the play. It needed to happen.
When was the first time you saw or read the play?
Gordon: I saw the play on Broadway in 2003. I’ve known it since then and thought about her since then as a symbol of survival and going against the grain—not caring about the times you live in in order to be yourself.
Jacob Tobia: I didn’t know it existed until August of last year when Danny sent it to me and I was like, ‘what the fuck? How have I never heard of this?’ I would like to consider myself something of a theater and literary queer, and had never heard of it in my life. I was like, ‘wow, (A) I really need to check my credentials, and (B) I think that speak volumes to the fact that the play doesn’t have the sort of commonplace recognition and status that it deserves within popular consciousness.’
It’s striking to me that a show could win a Tony and Pulitzer Prize and have the lead actor win the Tony for Best Actor, and then could fall off of the radar like that. I’m not saying that I am the radar of the theater world, I’m not. But as a queer and gender-nonconforming trans young person, I feel like I am relatively informed about legacies and queer history, and this was something that I just totally hadn’t heard of. I don’t want this play to be something that was only known by really educated people in the theater world. I want this to be in the common trans consciousness.
Jacob Tobia by David-Simon Dayan
It’s crazy, I read it a few years ago and I don’t even remember how I came to find out about it, but I was just like… I don’t even go to plays, I have no involvement in theater, but I was like, “this is incredible.” No one’s really heard of it.
Tobia: Yeah! You shouldn’t have to take a graduate level theater studies course in order to read this or know about it. Why isn’t there a movie adaptation yet? Like a major blockbuster? I have so many questions about why this project has not become bigger in this sort of trans moment that we’re having, you know? It feels like it was a decade too early.
I just want trans people to know about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. I want all of us to understand her as one of our historical icons. She’s not a figure who’s easy to turn into a martyr or a saint and it’s hard to canonize her because she’s really complicated. She has a [German secret police] Stasi file. She worked with the Fascist police at a certain point in her life. Exactly how is kind of unclear, and in what ways it’s hard to say, because their records are just as inaccurate as her half of it.
The fact of her existence is something we should cherish and hold dear. I’m always finding ways to be surprised by just how not new everything I’m doing is, you know? Just how not new transness and queerness and gender-nonconforming people are. We say we’ve always been around, and we understand that on a conceptual level, but I think that the more receipts we have for that, the more we know it in our own hearts. I Am My Own Wife feels like such an important receipt of like, “no no no, we really have always fuckin’ been around.”
How did you two link up for this?
Gordon: Jacob’s agent is a friend of mine and asked what I’m working on. I said I was doing a play about a transgender woman and his agent was like, ‘you need to meet Jacob.’ We had dinner and I knew seconds into meeting them that I had to work with them on this.
Tobia: It was one of those things where Danny was like, ‘this project should happen, right?” And I was like, ‘yeah, this should happen.’ And then he was like, ‘I want to do it with an all trans cast,’ and I was like, ‘I want to do it with an all trans cast!’ Then he was like, ‘do you want to play Doug, the playwright?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, and I want to produce it!”
We both had this collective enthusiasm and we didn’t know exactly what it would look like because neither of us are theater producers by training, but I was like, ‘let’s just run off into the sunset together if we can find it.’
Rain Valdez by David-Simon Dayan
After that, we applied for a grant through the West Hollywood Transgender Advisory Board and got a grant from the city of West Hollywood from the Trans Advisory Council’s art initiative, and then the LGBT Center of LA got us the Renberg Theater for free, which is a beautiful venue. Because the LGBT Center of LA gave us the space, we were able to allocate most of our budget to actually paying our actors.
That’s one of those things that’s most exciting to me about the project. As trans actors in Hollywood, so much of what we get in terms of work— if we get any work at all—is these shitty roles conceptualized by other people about our community. So little of it is high caliber or complicated or this theatrical work. It feels so exciting for me to be able to pay my brilliant trans friends to do work that we feel ownership of. Something that is still high caliber and stretching us as actors and performers. I still wish we could pay people double or triple what we actually are giving them because I think trans people deserve the world—they deserve thousands of dollars for lifting their pinky fingers. I feel like I should be able to charge an “I got out of bed today and exist in the world as a trans person” fee before I even charge an acting fee, you know?
Scott Turner Schofield by David-Simon Dayan
How does it feel to create this adaptation with an all-trans cast?
Gordon: I knew I had to do this with a transgender cast because it is a transgender story. It is their story. Even though there are 35 characters in the play and only one transgender character, they’re all in it together.
I got rid of the majority of the stage directions in the original text because it refers to it as being a one-person show. I got rid of all of that and set the play in a warehouse in the modern day. Four friends encounter this place with all of this history inside of it and the four of them take on all of these characters. In a way, it’s history blending together. It’s Charlotte’s history blending with our contemporary history.
Tobia: I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re telling a story about a trans woman who survived under not just one, but two brutal fascist regimes. There’s a reason why now is an exciting time to be telling the story. It’s because trans people… We deserve to be celebrated for our survival. We deserve to celebrate those who have survived, even if that survival is complicated.
It’s not accidental that we’re highlighting this story in a time when a lot of trans people are focused on just surviving. I think now, more than ever, is a time where we want to be celebrating resilience You’re never the first generation to be resilient. You’re never the first queer or trans generation to be resilient in the face of adversity. The history of our community and the history of trans and gender-nonconforming people is to be resilient in the face of insurmountable odds. We’ve done it before, we can do it again, and we can do it in ways that’s as quirky as running an antiques museum and lowkey leather bar in an old mansion in East Berlin.
Jason Green by David-Simon Dayan
At a time when our political administration is so vehemently anti-trans, how do you feel putting on a production that celebrates the trans community?
Gordon: It feels exhilarating. It’s very easy to feel helpless during these times and you wonder what you can do to help. I know the theater more than I know anything else, so you’ve got to put your talents to use in order to make a change.
Photography: David-Simon Dayan